Building the Right High Potential Pool—1
The Strain on the Talent Pool
“At the end of the day, the company with the best team, the best people will win in the long run.” (GE)
In the whirlwind that is today’s global marketplace, competition for good talent is intense; however,
competition for great talent is fierce. Over the next two decades, 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every
, leaving a cavernous hole in the talent market. As the economy continues its slow path to recovery,
34% of companies globally report having trouble filling vacancies due to talent shortages. This statistic is
up from 30% in 2009, indicating that as the economy improves, the war for talent will become even more
With the convergence of an amplified focus on growth and a graying workforce, the strain on the
available pool of talent will be immense. This crisis is global in scope and currently affects 81% of
employers in Japan, 71% in Brazil, 50% in Australia, 49% in the U.S., and 48% in India.3
The shortage of skilled talent is real, and the disparity between supply and demand will only become
greater over time. Employers overwhelmingly cite the mismatch between available candidates and the
needed technical expertise and employable skills as a key obstacle in filling vacancies. These in-demand
skills vary by region, but globally the need for skilled trade workers is greatest, followed by engineers and
then sales representatives.4
Progressive leaders understand that a solid talent bench is quite literally the
lifeline to their future success. Thus, developing high potentials is a crucial component of a company’s
business strategy, as it directly feeds or depletes the collection of talent capable of filling impending
senior leadership vacancies.
“The talent pool is the backbone of the organization’s future; it is the top priority and first stop to address
all types of projects.” (BBVA)
The Value of High Potentials
All these factors combined have created urgency for companies to focus on identifying, developing,
retaining and rewarding their best people. Talent-savvy organizations realize the significant value of their
high potentials. They know that getting the right people, with the right capabilities, in the right places, is
crucial to the health and growth of the company. Critical talent is a major competitive weapon. One
European Top Company for Leaders honoree recognized the importance of the financial investment in
high potential development to curb the potential risks to the business if the right talent pipelines are not
available. This company maintained its investment during the economic downturn and considers the
results to be “something which pays dividends again and again.” Top Companies truly believe that talent
is their greatest asset. More important, they act on this belief and have the financial results to show for it.
According to Aon Hewitt’s 2011 Top Companies for Leaders study, Top Companies outperform their
industry peers in growth (e.g., CAGR revenue, CAGR EBITA) and return (e.g., ROE, ROA) measures. In
Passel, J. and Cohn, D. (2008). U.S. population projects: 2005-2050. Retrieved from
ManpowerGroup. (2012). Talent shortage survey research results. Retrieved from
ManpowerGroup. (2012). Talent shortage survey research results. Retrieved from
ManpowerGroup. (2012). Talent shortage survey research results. Retrieved from
Building the Right High Potential Pool—2
addition, publicly traded regional Top Company winners report, on average, nearly 9% higher total
shareholder return (TSR) over the last three years.
Over the last decade, there has been no shortage of material written about high potential talent. Several
key thought leaders have identified the impact of high potentials on the bottom line, regardless of whether
they are born or made, or how exactly “high potential” is defined. Brad Smart, co-author of the book
Topgrading, writes about the impact “A,” “B,” and “C” players can have on an organization’s bottom line.
He concludes that “A” players, those synonymous with high potentials, may be expensive, but they also
deliver two to six times the return of average players.5
Organizations may refer to high potential employees as “critical talent” or “top talent”; however, more
important than the term they use to classify the individuals is that organizations first establish a clear
definition of what “high potential” looks like at their organization. At Aon Hewitt, we are often asked, “How
do organizations define high potentials? How do they assess them? What processes do they use to
calibrate top talent?” In the pages that follow, we introduce several best practice “high potential”
definitions, determine the key tools used to identify and calibrate top talent, highlight a number of inherent
challenges of which leaders must be cognizant, and finally underline some strategies used by leading
organizations to obtain high potential talent. The information in this paper draws from current literature,
our extensive Top Companies for Leaders research, and our experience with talent and leadership in
Defining High Potential
Before we get to just exactly what “high potential” is we must define what “high potential” is not. While the
term “high performer” is often used interchangeably with “high potential,” the two are not synonymous.
Research has shown that high potentials are almost always high performers, but the reverse is not
always true. Our Top Companies for Leaders research confirms that the best firms understand that an
individual’s current performance and his or her future potential for advancement are two fundamentally
different measures. Performance is typically defined during the talent management process and is often a
combination of delivering business results (the “what”) with the exhibition of certain behaviors expected of
leaders (the “how”). While performance is evaluated in a historical context, typically over the past six
months to a year, potential is a future-directed assessment. Specifically, a person’s potential refers to
their ability to take on a position of greater responsibility within a specific time period.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “How to hang on to your high potentials,” the authors define
potential as a person’s ability to succeed in roles with responsibilities of greater scale and scope. The
authors define “greater scale” as “a job in the same area but with, say, a larger budget or staff.” “Greater
scope” is “a job involving activities of substantially more breadth and complexity.”6
In a Business Strategy Review article, “The anatomy of a high potential,” authors Ready, Conger, Hill,
and Stecker identify the basic characteristics of a high potential employee as “delivering strong results,
credibly and not at others’ expense,” “mastering expertise beyond the technical,” and “behaving in ways
Gandossy, R. and Effron, M. (2003) Leading the Way: Three Truths from the Top Companies for Leaders. John Wiley
& Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.
Fernández-Aráoz, C., Groysberg, B., and Nitin, N. (2011). How to hang on to your high potentials. Harvard Business
Review, 89(10), 75-83. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.
Building the Right High Potential Pool—3
consistent with the company’s values.” The authors then go on to identify additional “x-factors” that
separate high potentials from a pack of otherwise strong performers. These “x-factors” include a drive to
excel, a catalytic learning capability, an enterprising spirit, and dynamic sensors.7
Recent literature identifies core competencies that are central to the term “high potential.” In their 2009
article, “The pearls and perils of identifying potential,”8
Rob Silzer and Allan Church synthesize the
expansive literature and assessment practices regarding high potentials and propose an integrated model
that allows organizations to ask the question: Potential for what? Silzer and Church’s model illustrates the
key indicators of potential, while still allowing room for the tremendous diversity in an organization’s talent
pool. According to the model, potential falls along three dimensions and is indicated by the following
(Consistent and stable,
unlikely to develop or
Cognitive: Conceptual strategic thinking, Cognitive abilities, Dealing with complexity
Personality: Interpersonal skills, Sociability, Dominance, Emotional stability, Resilience
(Facilitate or hinder growth
and development in other
Learning: Adaptability, Learning orientation, Open to feedback
Motivation: Drive, Energy, Achievement orientation, Career ambition, Risk taking,
(Early indicators of later
Leadership: Leadership capabilities, Managing people, Developing others, Influencing,
Challenging status quo, Change management
Performance: Performance record (career-relevant), Career experiences
Knowledge: Technical/functional skills and knowledge
Cultural fit: Career-relevant values and norms
Ready, D., Conger, J., Hill, L., and Stecker, E. (2010). The anatomy of a high potential. Business Strategy Review,
21(3), 52-55. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.
Silzer, R. and Church, A. (2009). The pearls and perils of identifying potential. Industrial and Organizational
Psychology, 2(4), 377-412.
Building the Right High Potential Pool—4
Aon Hewitt’s Approach to Defining High Potential Talent
Aon Hewitt’s approach to defining high potential talent builds and expands on the multi-faceted approach
reflected in the definitions described above. It also reflects key facets of potential that our extensive
research and consulting experience, with best-in-class organizations, has uncovered. Organizations
typically identify high potentials as those employees, or leaders, who possess the business acumen,
vision, and leadership capabilities to become leaders (or more senior leaders) within the company. They
look for the skills and attributes that allow top talent to propel into more challenging roles within a
Drawing from our extensive Top Companies for Leaders research, as well as our experience, we
uncovered how some of the best companies around the globe define top talent. Granted, the approach
to defining high potentials varies from organization to organization with some more focused on skills
and others more focused on pure potential for a particular role.
The definition used in Aon Hewitt’s Top Companies for Leaders study defines a high potential as an
employee who is identified as “having significant opportunity (e.g., through their capability, drive,
investment, development) to advance quickly in the organization.”
Samples of actual organizational definitions of high potentials:
High Potentials are categorized into two groups based on their readiness to take on the next-
level roles. Category A: Those identified as proven talent and among the best in the industry. High
potentials in this category display readiness to take on the next level of job year on year. Category
B: This category includes employees who display high potential but need to be tracked for some
time. They may be ready to take on the next level of job over a longer time horizon (3–5 years). —
Global Top Company
Great Performer with Significant Upside: A great performer with more significant upward
potential. He/she has the capability and desire to be promoted at least one level and/or take on a
significantly expanded role in the next two to three years. — North America Top Company
Great Performer: Associate is best in class in their field. If the role were open we would clearly
hire this person without doing an external search. This person hires/develops great talent and is a
good example of living our values. Some people in this category could have one-level promotion
potential. — North America Top Company
High Potential: This individual demonstrates the intellectual aptitude and leadership capacity to
progress through multiple roles of increased responsibility, complexity, and scope and is likely to
do so at an accelerated pace (at least 2 new roles in 5 years). — North America Top Company
Promotable: This individual demonstrates the intellectual aptitude and leadership capacity to take
on expanded roles at the next organizational level or a role of significantly increased scope in a
larger organization (1 new role in 5 years). — North America Top Company
The critical component organizations must consider when developing a consistent and relevant
definition of high potential is to ensure the definition is simple and consistent across the organization
and is explicitly linked to the current and future strategy of the organization.
Building the Right High Potential Pool—5
relatively short time frame. However, this definition of high potential fits only one piece of the puzzle.
Organizations must focus their efforts on employees who demonstrate potential combined with readiness.
Aon Hewitt defines potential as the assessment of an employee’s ability to rise to and succeed in a more
senior or expanded role. Potential considers individuals’ performance, character, capability and
Furthermore, organizations can benefit by placing individuals who demonstrate these attributes into
categories best suited for their current level of potential: “high potential,” “medium potential” and “at
potential.” Doing so allows organizations to calibrate talent more effectively and identify where specific
investments and accelerated development opportunities will have the greatest impact.
High performance sustained
demands and client needs
Results-oriented and creative
Remains flexible with changing
Effectively manages ambiguity
Prioritizes and optimizes
situations to achieve results
Role models the company
culture and values
Has a passion for the business
Exudes confidence and is well
Aspires to higher levels of
responsibility and challenges
Persistent in seeking
opportunities to grow as a
Works beyond the scope of
his/her job responsibility
Demonstrates the ability and
aspiration to move laterally in the
near future. Focus should be on
character and capability.
Demonstrates the ability and
aspiration to move to a more
senior and/or expanded role in
the near future. All four facets of
potential are evident.
Well placed in current role.
Should remain in current or
similar role for the near future.
Building the Right High Potential Pool—6
A secondary component to determining where an individual is placed on the high potential spectrum is to
evaluate the employee’s readiness to take on expanded responsibilities or experience a change in role.
Readiness is typically categorized into three stages: Ready Now (less than one year), Ready Soon (one
to three years) and Ready Future (more than three years). Placement in these categories aids
organizations in determining the timeline they have to identify critical gaps in their capabilities and identify
pipeline risks within their succession planning processes. Determining readiness can be influenced by
many factors outside an employee’s capability, including location (local market versus regional or global
high potential), position/level (executive or VP level versus below VP level), career stage (early versus
late, work-life balance needs), and diversity measures (gender, ethnicity, age). These influences should
also be individually assessed on an annual basis through coaching and developmental conversations
between the employee and his or her leaders.
Assessing High Potential Talent
For many companies, the process of identifying precisely who their high potentials are becomes what
Employment Relations Today has called a “know it when I see it adventure,” as opposed to a systematic
process that objectively evaluates and identifies the company’s rising stars. In a recent survey conducted
by AMA Enterprises, only 8% of participating organizations reported using truly systematic methods to
identify their high potentials. In looking at the popularity of different methods used, the survey showed that
only 35% of companies used talent assessments while other less objective assessments such as
performance appraisals (74%), manager recommendations (69%), innovative/unique business
contributions (42%), and input from peers (35%) were equally or more popular criteria.9
The risk in this
type of talent management is that the process feels much like a popularity contest, allowing the pipeline to
potentially be filled with the wrong talent, while top talent gets pushed or walks out the door.
Top Companies recognize the intense investment in the creation of “high potential” employees. It takes
dollars and time to develop and retain leaders in the hopes that these investments can be reversed and
become the best resources in the organization. The philosophy at Aditya Birla Group is to invest in the
best, but to focus on the rest. In other words, Aditya Birla believes everybody has the capability to lead,
but there is need to differentiate between them and invest accordingly. As a result, Top Companies on
Edwards, S. (2012). Maintaining the delicate balance when developing high-potential programs. T+D, 66(4), 60-65.
Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.
(Less than 1 year)
(More than 3
Influential Factors: Career Stage, Location, Diversity
Building the Right High Potential Pool—7
average designate the “high potential” status to less than one quarter of their leadership population. This
allows the companies access to enough forerunners to cultivate a strong pipeline of leaders for the future,
but a small enough population to focus their efforts appropriately.
Median percentage of the total employee population at each
level designated as high potential
Companies All Others
Senior management 25% 18%
Middle management 20% 15%
Front line management 15% 12%
Entry level/early career 15% 10%
Companies that do not track “high potentials” at each level
Companies All Others
Senior management 16% 31%
Middle management 12% 33%
Front line management 17% 34%
Entry level/early career 21% 40%
While some companies allow employees who meet certain requirements to apply for high potential status,
a number of leading companies use the talent review process to select high potentials. Best-in-class
organizations not only use a variety of inputs to evaluate high potential status, but also use channels
customized by level to assess potential. Many companies use 360-degree feedback for this group of top
talent, while leadership competencies, peer reviews (not 360), and talent inventories are also frequently
utilized to evaluate high potential talent. Psychometric assessments (e.g., mechanisms to evaluate
specific individuals’ cognitive, behavioral or innate attributes) are another popular choice to evaluate an
individual’s strength or developmental areas.
High potentials are formally identified by 100% of North America Top Companies (and 96% of Global Top
Companies) through a balance of assessments such as 360-degree feedback and leadership style
inventories as well as performance ratings and nominations. These comprehensive methods provide
leading organizations with a robust view of the individual’s capabilities, cultural fit, drive, and relationships
within the organization. General Electric conducts approximately 20 executive assessments each year to
evaluate the up-and-coming senior-level talent. Two senior-level HR professionals then conduct a 3–5
hour behavioral-based interview. Interviews are followed up by 20−30 internal and external reference
checks. The process concludes with a report of the person’s career, key experiences, and assessment of
leadership skills, which is shared with the individual. The individual then takes this information and crafts
a development plan. The Chairman and CEO read each assessment and development plan and respond
with a personal note to each candidate.
Building the Right High Potential Pool—8
A formal assessment process provides a means of evaluating potential for performing in future roles by
allowing organizations to evaluate competencies and aptitudes that cannot be observed in a current role.
It provides a common metric for comparing candidates and offers opportunities to uncover “hidden” talent.
Aon Hewitt’s Approach to Assessing High Potential Talent
Based on research and years of expertise, Aon Hewitt has observed that the best practices associated
with assessing potential focus on five central components. The fundamental starting point for a best-in-
class assessment practice is alignment with the organizational strategy. To accomplish success, the
assessment must focus on the organization’s mission, values and challenges; support long-term growth
and desired change; and perpetuate the enterprise by ensuring a leadership pipeline.
1. Legal and Professional Guidelines—The skills and capabilities being assessed must map to
required competencies and be consistent with the organization’s culture, address competencies
necessary to “make the curve” at key career transition points, and be consistent with legal and
2. Multiple methods—The input methods must include those assessment approaches with the
strongest validity for measuring relevant competencies and should assess the most critical
competencies with multiple methods (using hurdles as appropriate, based on volume).
3. Flexible—The process should be flexible, balancing the need for remote versus face-to-face
administration, and should be appropriately customized to the organization’s competencies,
language, and business context.
4. Cost-effective—To ensure the process is cost-effective, administration processes for candidates
and administrators should be efficiently designed and minimize travel expenses that do not add value
to the assessment process.
5. Promotes Ongoing Development—An exemplary assessment tool promotes ongoing
development by providing information that can be used for feedback and development, is perceived
as positive and useful by participants, and links to development resources.
World-class companies focus on both the requirements of the role and the personal attributes of the
individuals in that role. Moreover, those organizations that are future-focused and able to predict their
talent needs will be the ones that ultimately grow and succeed.
PepsiCo identifies leaders for a 10-year program using a robust talent pool methodology derived from a
performance and potential assessment. The methodology is further augmented with a measurement of
potential that includes blending potential and ultimate career runway together. The process allows
PepsiCo to see, for example, that if an individual is predicted to need 15 years of development to get to a
role—but only has 10 years left in their career—then this is not the person to put in the program.
Global Top Companies are more likely than other companies to use a variety of assessments unique to
various leadership levels in order to ensure they are gaining a complete picture of their high potential
candidates. Below is a graph comparing the different types of assessment with unique criteria for leader
levels used by Global Top Companies versus their peers.
Building the Right High Potential Pool—9
Assessments Used Vary by Leader Level
Calibrating High Potential Talent
While best practice assessment is critical for identifying an organization’s high potential talent, best
practice calibration is critical for building and maintaining the talent pipeline in a consistent and defensible
manner. This calibration process results in determination of high potential status, succession plans, and
development decisions. Generally speaking, it occurs during the annual review process; however, talent-
savvy companies evaluate their talent several times throughout the year.
How Do Top Companies Calibrate Top Talent?
The most common technique is the practice of plotting candidates on a grid (e.g., 9-box or 12-box) along
two dimensions: performance and potential. Typically, levels and descriptions of performance (i.e., low,
medium and high) appear along a vertical axis while dimensions and descriptions of potential appear
along the horizontal axis. Managers use these descriptions to plot an individual in a particular quadrant to
determine a variety of outcomes such as succession placement, readiness for promotion, and attrition
risk. A strong grid system has specific action steps and requirements defined for each coordinate. During
the talent review, an individual’s placement is compared to the placement of others at the same level.
Organizations that excel at calibration take these conversations seriously and they often result in robust
and vehement debates among peers to ensure agreement throughout the team. They recognize what is
at stake for the recipients, the differentiated investments in the development of critical talent, and the
organization’s reputation and long-term success.
82% 80% 77%
Global Top Companies Global All Others
Building the Right High Potential Pool—10
According to our research, the high potential calibration process should take place in two structured
1. The first meeting should take place between HR, the manager, and his or her leader. Prior to this
meeting, the manager should have assessed each of his or her team members’ performance and
potential based on the established criteria.
2. The second conversation should be with a group of the manager’s peers (preferably those at similar
levels and functions within the organization) to discuss their opinions of the manager’s team based on
specific personal experiences. Other managers should also be held accountable to put their people
“on the table” for discussion, as this process yields a comprehensive map of the quality and depth of
talent within an organization.10
The process then repeats upward, culminating in a thorough review with the CEO, providing insights on
talent within and across business units, geographies, and functions. Most organizations conduct this
process for top management. Top Companies, however, embrace a robust process covering all levels of
These calibration conversations should not only focus on who is being added to the high potential list, but
also on who needs to be taken off the list. Only 44% of non-Top Companies remove high potentials from
the pool as appropriate, compared to 80% of Global Top Companies.
Above all else, talent calibration must be grounded in reality. Potential and readiness are most accurately
measured when the ratings are evaluated by formal, objective assessments, as well as by other
managers and leaders who know the individual. By sharing their knowledge of a high potential’s
capabilities, they can ensure calibration is conducted as accurately as possible and that individual biases
do not overly influence the rating. Executing with this level of rigor also helps guide development
Gandossy, R. and Effron, M. (2003) Leading the Way: Three Truths from the Top Companies for Leaders. John
Wiley and Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.
Levels Formally Identified in High Potential Process
Senior management Middle management Front line management Entry level/early career
Global Top Companies All Others
Building the Right High Potential Pool—11
conversations and identifies talent gaps that may not have surfaced were it not for multiple inputs. This
helps build credibility in the process, allowing for greater transparency and confidence when informing
employees of their high potential status. The Top Companies for Leaders are exemplars in the calibration
process—their sessions are held several times throughout the year, they include active involvement from
senior management, and they have action items and clear accountability built into the talent review
process. The best processes focus on building a pipeline 7−10 years out.
In our work with leading companies, we have learned how Top Companies calibrate their high potential
talent. Specifically, they look at both potential and readiness, utilizing a variety of methods to get to the
final determination. At IBM, it’s a full bottoms-up review, where individual reviews roll up to teams of ready
successors referred to as “benches” within the business units, and then to senior-level executive review.
The review covers calibration, including a lively discussion about talent moves, alternate scenarios, and
pipeline strength. Immediate successor charts and longer-term charts are developed. The calibration
process is based on data and reported upon extensively. IBM reviews all types of benches so it can focus
on those that are in need of the most help, and can determine where it needs to hire, accelerate
development, and borrow talent.
More Samples of Organizations’ Calibration Processes
Target Corporation’s talent review process starts with each team member completing an annual
self-review of their performance against their goals and other expectations. This is followed by
their leaders assessing their performance and accomplishments—both what they accomplished
and how they accomplished it—as well as assessing the employee’s personal strengths and
opportunities. Additionally, leaders across the company routinely discuss talent at all levels,
intentionally plan for team member development, and consider diverse talent (among other
things). This helps them evaluate whether they have the right leaders in the right place and
calibrate talent consistently. This also demonstrates a deep commitment to leadership
development at all levels within the company.
The NZ Refining Leadership Team calibrates all reviews to ensure that leadership behaviors are
being displayed consistently. If a manager has not been developing his or her staff, his or her final
performance rating is negatively impacted.
Through use of new global dashboards, Whirlpool Corporation operates a fully integrated talent
management system, disciplined talent review and calibration meetings, and a robust succession
planning process. This results in its leaders and managers having insight into the top leaders and
performers across the globe.
American Express uses a nine-box grid to assess talent via performance and potential, with a
definition of potential that reflects elements of learning agility and growth mindset. Talent reviews
are conducted within and then across businesses to raise talent awareness and facilitate strategic
job moves. High potential employees are targeted for growth opportunities, leadership
development, and placement on succession plans.
Building the Right High Potential Pool—12
Best Practices in High Potential Calibration
Several key elements yield a best-in-class process for calibrating top talent:
Multi-Faceted Ratings. Calibration should look at the multiple factors that define “high potential,” and
individuals should be rated on each of the following dimensions: potential (performance, character,
capability, and motivation) and readiness level (Ready Now, Ready Soon, Ready Future).
Multiple Sources of Input. The company should require multiple assessments and inputs to calibrate
talent with various managers.
The Calibration Session. The calibration discussion should focus on the extremes of the talent spectrum
to allow more time to discuss specific employees in detail. To ensure individual biases do not occur in the
talent review process, managers are taught to set the stage for an open dialogue, but to not dominate the
discussion. During the process, conversations must be rooted in objective metrics and observations of
behavior. To avoid the “I won’t challenge you if you don’t challenge me” issue, facilitators should
encourage constructive conflict between participants. Reviewing past performance at the outset of the
meeting gives participants a gauge from which to measure an individual’s progress. Compensation
should not be up for discussion during the calibration and assessment phase; rather, compensation
decisions are best tabled until a later time.
Multiple Reviews. Talent-savvy organizations conduct talent reviews and calibration sessions at least
twice a year.
Action Plans. Lastly, the calibration and review process should yield an active, individual development
plan, with follow-up items established throughout the year. These plans should be simple in design but
powerful and purposeful in execution.
Building the Right High Potential Pool—13
Transparency and High Potentials
Many organizations shy away from communicating the results of these conversations to identified high
potentials. According to Harvard Business Review, transparency is on the rise. In 2010, 85% of
companies reported informing their high potentials of their status, as compared to only 70% a decade
The 2011 Top Companies for Leaders research shows that 80% of North America Top
Companies make high potentials aware of their status, compared to only 53% of all other North America
participants. In addition, North America Top Companies are more likely to communicate to individuals
when they are no longer considered high potential (71% versus 33%).
Once informed of their position, high potentials are given key opportunities to further develop their skills.
Aditya Birla Group creates career charts to track performance paths. Aditya Birla is not only transparent
about its plans, but also gives an enormous amount of flexibility to ensure there are opportunities
available for high potentials.
L’Oréal’s objective for its high potentials is to expose the critical talents to the organization and be
transparent. Beyond operational performance, L’Oréal strives to provide critical talent with ample
opportunities to show their competencies through various events and networking opportunities. This
allows them to reach the next step, create a global network, and share L’Oréal’s culture and vision.
A significant part of an organization’s effort to be transparent is the extent to which it formally identifies its
high potentials. The Center for Creative Leadership explored the impact this had on high potential talent
by interviewing 199 high potential business leaders.12
The goal of the study was to get a look from “inside
the pipe,” and the results provided powerful insights. The study found that formally recognized high
potentials were more likely to actually consider themselves high potential than those who were not
recognized. This, in turn, impacted retention as only 14% of formally recognized high potentials reported
looking for other employment, compared to 33% of those who were never formally recognized. The study
suggests that not being acknowledged makes it difficult for high potentials to envision their path of
advancement in the company, often leading to frustration, a lack of role clarity, and turnover as these
under-recognized individuals become prey to competing offers.
Cultivating High Potential Talent
The leadership pipeline starts to pollinate immediately with whom you let in the door. Once the right talent
is on board, the onus is on senior leaders to begin cultivating the talent bench. Securing a deep and
talented bench requires a relentless focus on grooming high potentials, one that is driven directly from the
top. Organizations that are most successful at securing strong bench strength are those that
demonstratively value talent. Their commitment starts at the top of the house and permeates throughout
all levels of the organization. Leaders are on the front lines, involved in the identification, assessment,
and development of their high potential talent. They know who the rising stars are, what their needs are,
and how they are performing at any given time. Meaningful accountability is requisite for both senior
Ready, D. A., Conger, J. A., and Hill, L. A. (2010). Are you a high potential? Harvard Business Review, 88(6), 78-84.
Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.
Campbell, M. and Smith, Roland. (2010). High-potential talent: A view from inside the leadership pipeline. Retrieved
Building the Right High Potential Pool—14
leaders and direct managers. Without it, organizational efforts to attract, inspire, and retain top performers
will fall short.
Beyond active and present senior leadership involvement, it is important to have a common framework of
talent management across the organization. Divergent notions within the same organization can result in
a “talent inventory,” instead of focusing on the active development and management of key talent for key
roles. Moreover, if people aren’t developed appropriately there’s a risk of moving people into positions
they don’t actually have the ability to succeed in. Talent-savvy organizations know their performance
assessment processes, such as nine-box grids, are only the starting point—and certainly not the ending
point—in calibrating high potential talent. Organizations must also take into account the development and
deployment of their top talent, and they must hold leaders accountable for this critical facet of planning for
the company’s future success.
Executing with Excellence—What It Takes to Sustain Success
Clearly, the first step involves defining exactly what “high potential” means for the organization. This can
best be accomplished by examining the dimensions of potential and readiness—which recognize and
assess the skills and attributes that are most essential to identifying high potential talent. Once “high
potential” has been clearly defined, the calibration process will run more smoothly, as managers will be
working from the same baseline. At that point, the organization can take the following steps to ensure that
it is armed with adequate information for effectively pollinating its high potential talent pools:
Identify high potential talent in an objective, future-focused manner;
Calibrate this talent on a regular basis, using multiple inputs;
Create action plans and career maps for these top performers;
Recalibrate talent and move individuals on/off the high potential list accordingly; and
Hold leadership meaningfully accountable for each of these steps.
What is perhaps most important for companies to realize is that developing top talent is more than just the
next step in a well-managed high potential program; it represents a tremendous opportunity for
competitive advantage. While defining, identifying, and calibrating talent are all important and necessary
steps in the high potential process, the development of an organization’s high potentials is the key to
success. It is when these individuals enhance and apply their knowledge, skills, and abilities that
companies truly get their return on investment. In the next series, we will uncover key elements that
differentiate development for high potentials and what organizations can do to accelerate their critical
talent development to ensure their high potentials are well suited to take the future reins of the
Building the Right High Potential Pool—15
About the Research
Initiated in 2001 by Hewitt Associates (now Aon Hewitt), Top Companies for Leaders is the world’s most
comprehensive longitudinal study of leadership and leadership practices. The study, recognized for its
global scope and research rigor, attracts hundreds of companies around the globe that seek outside-in
insights on leader building and how the best develop and sustain their leadership pipelines. Aon Hewitt
was pleased to work once again with FORTUNE, the leading global business publication, and The RBL
Group, the esteemed HR strategy and leadership consultancy founded by thought leaders Dave Ulrich
and Norm Smallwood. Through its 10-year history, more than 2,000 organizations have participated in the
study, many participating year after year.
For more information on the Top Companies for Leaders research, methodology, and insights, visit:
Building the Right High Potential Pool—16
Lorraine Stomski, Ph.D.
Leadership Service Line Leader
Performance, Rewards & Talent
Global Insights & Innovations Research Team Leader
Performance, Rewards & Talent